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A Message From IBM


Hugh McInnish


Hugh READ THIS CLOSELY. I AM CERTAINLY going to read it closely because I'm not quite sure who is writing it, or how much control I have over what is being said.

It was my lawyer who got me into this uncomfortable fix. Pat is a good friend and a man of unusually stringent scruples, especially for a lawyer, so I'm sure it was without malice that he told me that I should get myself a word processor. Get William Zinsser's book On Writing Well and read it if I was unconvinced, he told me.

I did need some convincing-- an old fashioned fountain pen and portable typewriter were getting me by pretty well-- so I got the book and read it. I knew of William Zinsser. He is a writer's writer, the author of the classic "On Writing Well," so I figured that I wouldn't be wasting my time even if I didn't buy whatever it was that he had to say.

What he had to say was that he had gotten religion. He confessed that in the past his sin had been "the snobbery of liberal-arts types who don't understand science or technology and don't want to." But his conscience nagged him and he says that he often thought "of the pleasure I've lost by shying away from the fields that I thought would be too hard to grasp." So he was ripe for change.

Then one day at the behest of his wife-- his wife, not his lawyer-- he went downtown and bought a word processor. Weeks of anguish followed. Zinsser struggled mightily, with his machine on the outside, but mainly with himself on the inside. Suddenly he saw the light. Electronic technology in the form of the word processor would be his salvation. It would save him time, it would make him a better writer.

Zinsser says that, "The burden of the years has been lifted. The word processor is God's gift..." Obviously this machine has changed the man's life. True to the evangelical spirit, now that he has been converted he wants to convert everybody else. Zinsser now recommends that the word processor be used by writers, nonwriters, managers, wee small children, even poets, and others.

After I put Zinsser's book down several months lapsed before the UPS began bringing parcels to my door--it took me that long to scrape up the money. When everything was here I unpacked the boxes and set up my equipment in a corner of my den. What I have is an IBM Personal Computer and an Olympia Compact II, which by itself is an electronic typewriter, but which is also connected to my computer and can be used as its printer. Just a few days ago I cabled the components together and brought this thing to life.

This is my first try at getting a headstrong robot to do a column for me and I have an out-of-control feeling. I'm not entirely certain whether it's me or IBM you're hearing from this week.

I am having several problems. For one thing my software is user hostile. It makes me do everything exactly its way. For instance if I give it a semicolon instead of a colon--if I just forget to press the shift key--it ignores my commands. It just sits there and flashes gleeful error messages at me. I'm finding that with software there is no compromising.

Another problem is the keyboard-- too many keys with too many strange symbols and the keys themselves too far apart. I strike a key to make one thing happen and something else pops up on the screen, or I reach for one key and hit another. I infer that IBM expects me to retrain some of my ten thumbs to perform as nimbly as fingers.

Despite this doleful situation, however, I have absorbed some of Mr. Zinsser's faith and I believe that when finally I tame this transistor-brained thing it will be good. By just touching a few keys, the right ones of course, I will be able to replace one word with another or do the same thing with a sentence or whole paragraph, all right here on the screen before me without having to crumple any paper or get out the correction fluid. Revisions will be immeasurably easier and, according to the Promise of Zinsser, I will become a better writer.

It's obvious to me that the eventual effect of the word processor will be to improve the diet and health of all Americans. As it is accepted by more and more writers their efficiency will increase and fewer will be needed to satisfy the country's ravenous literary appetite. Then former writers can move from the city to the farm and devote themselves to raising nutritious foods for us all.

My long range outlook is optimistic, for the word processor and for my use of it. But for a while it's going to be a struggle and, as I've said, we both need to look this column over very carefully. For all I know there may be an IBM commercial in here someplace-- and there wouldn't be much I could do about it.


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